Western dietary culture has emphasized almost exclusive reliance on meat as a protein source. In fact, until 1979, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Basic 4" food guidelines included a "meat group" with only a small-print mention of other protein sources (see References 1). Where vegetarians get their protein is a frequently asked question, and new vegetarians sometimes wonder if their diets will meet this essential need. In fact, plant sources provide adequate protein for a vegetarian diet.
Prepare main dishes or sides using beans and legumes. Beans and legumes offer a flavorful, inexpensive and protein-rich alternative to meat. One-quarter cup of beans or legumes contains the same amount of protein as an ounce of meat, with 5 to 7 oz. of meat recommended daily to meet protein requirements (see References 2). Beans and lentils feature heavily in many ethnic cuisines, such as Indian and Mexican, or add a new twist to classic American burgers by making them with black beans.
Substitute soy for your favorite meat-based dishes. Soy contains as much complete protein as meat (see References 3). Soy products like textured vegetable protein give the feel and flavor of meat to sauces, casseroles and stews. Tofu, often used in Asian cooking, works well in soups and stir-fries. Soy milks and beverages give vegetarians -- particularly vegans -- another protein-rich alternative.
Eat plenty of whole grains. Whole grains also offer a source of protein, although you should take care not to rely on them exclusively to meet your protein needs (see References 4, page 1268). Whole-grain breads and pastas, or brown rice, can form the basis for a grilled vegetable sandwich, a pasta primavera or a vegetable stir-fry.
Add moderate amounts of egg and dairy, if your type of vegetarianism permits. Although these foods provide protein, they are often high in fat and cholesterol. Whenever possible, choose low-fat options. (See References 4, page 1270)
Snack on nuts and seeds with foods like trail mix, sunflower seeds and shelled nuts. Nuts, seeds and nut butters provide protein in a form that makes a quick snack for on-the-go vegetarians (see References 5). Don't discount nuts and seeds as an added dose of protein in your main meals, though. Nuts and seeds make tasty additions to salads and Asian noodle dishes, for example.
- According to the American Dietetic Association, a vegetarian diet provides enough protein if it contains a variety of plant-based foods and meets the vegetarian's energy requirements. Contrary to ideas about the need to consume "complementary proteins" -- foods that contain all necessary amino acids -- the ADA concludes that eating a variety of foods over the course of the day meets the vegetarian's need for all specific amino acids.
- Protein from plant sources doesn't differ from protein from animal sources. Hard-to-digest foods, such as cereals or legumes, may supply less protein than foods like soy, however, requiring vegetarians to eat more protein-rich foods to compensate. Likewise, vegans should consume enough beans and soy to ensure a good supply of the amino acid lysine. (See References 4, pages 1267-1268)
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Basic 4 Food Guide (1956-1979)
- American Dietetic Association: Boost Your Nutrition With Beans
- American Dietetic Association: Enjoy Soy
- American Dietetic Association; Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets; Winston J. Craig, et al.; July 2009
- American Dietetic Association: Food Sources of Important Nutrients
First published in 2000, Dawn Walls-Thumma has served as an editor for "Bartleby" and "Antithesis Common" literary magazines. Walls-Thumma writes about education, gardening and sustainable living. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and writing from University of Maryland and is a graduate student in humanities at American Public University.
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